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Aging equipment and neglect means endless disasters in Russia

SHARE Aging equipment and neglect means endless disasters in Russia

MOSCOW — The loss of a Russian nuclear submarine is just one more catastrophe in a nation that has been transformed by years of decline and stagnation from a superpower into a technological junkyard.

Disasters ranging from crashing airplanes to industrial accidents have become commonplace in Russia, an increasingly poor country that can't afford to purchase new equipment or maintain aging Soviet-era machinery. In industry and the military, the problem has been compounded by carelessness, lack of training and pilfering.

President Vladimir Putin describes the increasingly worn-out equipment as one of the main obstacles to economic growth. "Only 5 percent of our enterprises are actively using modern technologies," Putin said at a recent meeting with scientists.

Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu has repeatedly warned that Russia faces disaster as everything from airplanes to elevators go without the maintenance vital to keep aging machinery running safely. In their annual forecast released in January — one which drew quick comparisons to Nostradamus' darkest prophecies — Shoigu's experts predicted that the country could face a steady string of technological disasters starting from fires, collapsing buildings and breaking pipelines and ending with leaks of radiation and poisonous chemicals.

Experts have warned that if the current shortage of funds for new equipment and maintenance goes on, most of Russia's industrial equipment could be unusable by 2007. Companies struggling to stay afloat and workers desperate to get any kind of pay continue to use aging equipment that should have been junked years ago, experts say.

"This danger is augmented by the popular neglect of safety rules in the run for profit," said Marina Ryklina, a spokeswoman for the Emergency Situations Ministry.

Unlike in Soviet times, when discipline and fear of punishment were stronger, safety rules are commonly ignored in modern Russia. A string of plane crashes were blamed on overloading after pilots accepted bribes to take extra cargo, weighing down their aircraft.

Natural gas explosions have become commonplace in apartment buildings because of a lack of maintenance. In rural areas, people hack holes into oil pipelines to siphon fuel, often causing fires or explosions.

Hundreds of people are electrocuted every year while trying to pilfer communication wires, electric cable and train and plane parts for sell as scrap metal. Large areas are left without electricity after power lines are looted.

Compounding the problem, many Russians say, is a tendency to minimize or dismiss danger — a trait that is sometimes boasted of as a national characteristic.

Thousands of people drown in Russia every summer, mostly men who swim when drunk. Drownings in Russia and other ex-Soviet republics are up to 500 percent higher than in Western nations, according to officials.

The Russian military is a glaring example of the breakdown, experts say. Even though the Kursk was one of the most modern vessels in the navy, its safety systems apparently failed to work.

"Not a single rescue system functioned on this top-of the-range submarine, so what can be said about the older ones?" said Alexander Golts, a military analyst for the weekly magazine Itogi.

Insisting it is still a world power, the navy refuses to scrap hundreds of rusting Soviet-era ships and submarines even though there is no money for maintenance. Navy officials admit that 70 percent of their ships need major repairs, and scores of vessels simply sank because their hulls rusted out.

"Why should we keep a huge and expensive nuclear fleet if we are short of funds to send it to sea for even three days?" the daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta said Friday. "We must live in accordance with our means and not turn the seamen into kamikaze when they go on an exercise."

Low military wages have contributed to a steady decline of skill and morale.

Officers, who earn the equivalent of $100 a month when they get paid, have to moonlight as gypsy cab drivers or security guards to feed their families. Theft is endemic in the military, with servicemen stripping ships and planes of parts and metal to sell for food and other necessities.

Earlier this year, four Russian sailors and a retired officer were arrested on charges of stealing radioactive fuel from a nuclear submarine. And an officer on another nuclear submarine stripped the vessel of a filtration unit that controlled the air supply. The crew would have suffocated if the theft hadn't been discovered in time.